In Ana Menéndez’s fifth work of fiction, The Apartment, Miami is not just a luxurious playground for spring breakers but also a colorful tableau with an intricately wrought history.
The Helena is an apartment complex in South Miami Beach that has stood for over 70 years, bearing witness to changes in landscape, climate and population. On the second floor of the Helena, apartment 2B anchors our story as characters and circumstances flow by like currents. Sometimes these currents are calm and deep, but Menéndez focuses on the rougher ones, showing us Miami during World War II and immediately after 9/11. By the time readers meet the mysterious Lana in 2012, we already have a rich historical memory of 2B and the Helena, creating a unique intimacy that challenges the limitations of time and space.
The novel begins in 1942, when a woman named Sophie moves with her husband, Jack, to Miami for his military service. She soon finds that between the war and Jack’s increasingly abusive behavior, Miami is not the tropical paradise of her dreams. The next resident of 2B, Eugenio, a concert pianist and Cuban refugee in 1963, is trying to start his life over again. As he reflects on his career while playing piano at a nursing home, he comes to acknowledge the importance of generational memory.
A primary concern of the book is the capacity and limitations of marriage; in addition to Sophie’s story, we meet Marilyn, a disaffected wife in 1994 who grows bored and disgusted with her husband’s miserly ways. But the highlight of this thematic exploration, and of the book as a whole, are the relationships between Beatrice, Ignacio and Maribel in 2002. Beatrice is Ignacio’s girlfriend, but Maribel is his wife, a setup that is born out of the desperation of immigration. Maribel’s Cuban heritage grants her easier access to citizenship, which, through a fraudulent marriage, she tries to give to Ignacio, who is from Colombia. Beatrice, meanwhile, who is from Haiti, is caught between her love for Ignacio and his struggle for citizenship, raising questions about the restrictive self-labeling of nationality and marriage.
All of this occurs before we meet the final resident of 2B, Lana, who bears the weight of all of this history. Her residence is preceded by a man named Lenin (who also reveals himself as the book’s narrator), and as the mystery of Lenin begins to unfold, Lana’s own enigmatic past comes into sharp focus. Through this kaleidoscope of characters and relationships, apartment 2B, with its white mice and diminishing ocean views, proves the transcendent quality of both individual lives and Menéndez’s writing.